Do Netflix’s Emmy Nominations “Blur the Line Forever About What Is Television”?

As Netflix’s House of Cards, Arrested Development, and even Hemlock Grove are validated by 14 Emmy nominations, the streaming company’s chief content officer, Ted Sarandos, explains that Netflix is not a creator of content so much as a facilitator. “We hire the creators and get out of the way.”

Do Netflix’s Emmy Nominations “Blur the Line Forever About What Is Television”?

The people who work at Netflix have been tempering their expectations lately. With anticipation building that the the tech company turned content producer would shake up the prime-time Emmy nominations by becoming the first to compete against the big boys in the major categories, Netflix’s chief content officer, Ted Sarandos, and his colleagues have been trying not to get carried away by the hype. “Big change usually comes really slow,” explained Sarandos when he got on the phone with Co.Create after the Emmy nominations this morning. And then he laughed and said giddily, “This is a big change!”

Arrested Development

Netflix earned an impressive 14 Emmy nominations, including Outstanding Drama Series for House of Cards, leading acting nods for Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, and a nomination for director David Fincher. Even Hemlock Grove, Netflix’s horror series, got two nominations. In traditional TV terms, this is change that did not happen slowly. The Television Academy has long been accused of taking its time to come around to new trends, but not this year.

Most Nominations, American Horror Story: Asylum

The nominations seem to validate the company’s methodology. “We’re used to moving fast,” he admits. “The rest of the world is a little slow.” House of Cards may be but one show (after all, Arrested Development used to earn more nominations when it was on Fox, and Hemlock Grove’s nods are minor), but these nominations confirm that Hollywood is enamored with Netflix. House of Cards cut through the media noise and achieved a level of critical consensus that is essential to Emmy success, much as American Horror Story: Asylum and Game of Thrones did, earning, respectively, 17 and 16 nominations. HBO leads with 108 nominations, including 15 for Behind the Candelabra. Showtime earned 32, and AMC and FX have 26 each. Another interesting groundbreaker to note: FX’s Louie is–believe it or not–the first basic-cable comedy series to be nominated for Outstanding Comedy.

Change has been afoot at the Emmys for the past few years, as AMC and FX have emerged as serious basic cable contenders and Showtime has gained credibility with Homeland. This year, with nine nominations for House of Cards and 14 overall, Netflix has broken cable’s lock on the drama series categories and is definitely onto something. “A lot of the other nominees, these shows are the result of years and millions of dollars in development and notes and pilots,” says Sarandos. “We didn’t do any of that. These shows are really the result of great storytellers telling great stories. We use the data and our distribution platform to get to the right people but our role in this is as a facilitator, not as a creator in that way.”

House Of Cards

House of Cards creator and executive producer Beau Willimon seconds that interpretation of Netflix’s m.o. “It’s really casual,” he said, calling before heading in for a day at work on the set of House of Cards, season two. “It’s not so much oversight as we’re constantly in touch. The executives at Netflix see dailies, but it’s a phone call or a casual walk over to craft services when they [essentially] say, ‘Here are our thoughts, take them for what you will.’ The overall premise is, ‘We want you guys to go out and make the show. We have faith in you.’ ” Netflix’s success can be attributed in part to its casting choices: Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright. No doubt exceptional actors, they are also movie stars. And when movie actors move to TV, audiences take them more seriously–and they almost always earn Emmy nominations. (The big snub for House of Cards is for Corey Stoll, who gave what I think was the show’s best performance as sex-and-drug-addicted Congressman Peter Russo. Alas, though he is a movie actor, Stoll is not a star–yet.)

Not everyone has agreed that the Netflix way consistently makes for good TV. The rebooted season of Arrested Development had plenty of critics. The company’s stock even took a dip on word of those reviews. But Sarandos maintains that their version of the show is “ahead of its time by Netflix standards.” He explains: “Mitch [Hurwitz] took on the most difficult writing and directing assignment in history, in both the way he constructed the show and the way he worked around the cast availability to tell the story. But more important, it’s the way he used our platform to tell a story in a radically different way, with 15 unique episodes that are totally codependent and totally independent at the same time.” Which was also a problem. “When you watch the first couple of episodes, for some people, it’s kind of disorienting. But when you realize that the last episodes are the punch lines for the first episodes, you see what an incredible viewing experience it is–people go back and watch it all over again.” No, Arrested Development didn’t sweep the Emmys, but Sarandos sees its three nominations as validation enough. “Over the passage of time, people will get it.”

Arrested Development

So Netflix has a shot in the arm to proceed with its disruptive pattern. “I think it validates the model in a lot of ways,” says Sarandos. “I think it also blurs the line forever about what television is. Television is what’s on the screen, no matter what size the screen or how the content got to the screen. Television is television is television.” That’s why he’s thrilled that their shows didn’t get shoved into some special category for Web series (much as Rob Corddry’s Childrens Hospital is relegated to the special Short-Format Live-Action Entertainment Programming category).


“The Emmys were forward-looking enough to recognize that there was something new happening. This is a big change–the idea that the Internet is going to deliver content that competes on the same playing field as premium television, network, and broadcast, who have been doing this for years.” House of Cards also picked up nods for cinematography, editing, and music–both for the series overall and for its main title sequence. Arrested Development did not receive a nomination for Best Comedy Series, but Jason Bateman did get acknowledged as leading actor, along with the show’s editing. Hemlock Grove was nominated for its visual effects and the music in its main title sequence.

Hemlock Grove

Willimon recognizes the potential danger of buying into what the nominations mean. “This recognition is a great form of encouragement,” he says, “but you can’t allow it to go to your head or make you lazy. It just motivates us to make season two better than season one.” No word yet on when season two will debut.

See some of the other 2013 Emmys nominations below.


Hugh Bonneville, Downton Abbey, PBS
Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad, AMC
Jeff Daniels, The Newsroom, HBO
Jon Hamm, Mad Men, AMC
Damian Lewis, Homeland, Showtime
Kevin Spacey, House of Cards, Netflix

Connie Britton, Nashville, ABC
Claire Danes, Homeland, Showtime
Michele Dockery, Downton Abbey, PBS
Vera Farmiga, Bates Motel, A&E
Elisabeth Moss, Mad Men, AMC
Kerry Washington, Scandal, ABC
Robin Wright, House of Cards, Netflix

The Big Bang Theory, CBS
Girls, HBO
Louie, FX
Modern Family, ABC
30 Rock, NBC
Veep, HBO


Breaking Bad, AMC
Downton Abbey, PBS
Homeland, Showtime
Game of Thrones, HBO
House of Cards, Netflix
Mad Men, AMC

Jason Bateman, Arrested Development, Netflix
Louis CK, Louie, FX
Don Cheadle, House of Lies, Showtime
Matt LeBlanc, Episodes, Showtime
Jim Parsons, Big Bang Theory, CBS
Alec Baldwin, 30 Rock, NBC

Lena Dunham, Girls, HBO
Laura Dern, Enlightened, HBO
Tiny Fey, 30 Rock, NBC
Amy Poehler, Parks and Recreation, NBC
Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Veep, HBO
Edie Falco, Nurse Jackie, Showtime


Adam Driver, Girls, HBO
Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Modern Family, ABC
Ed O’Neill, Modern Family, ABC
Ty Burrell, Modern Family, ABC
Bill Hader, Saturday Night Live, NBC
Tony Hale, Veep, HBO

Mayim Bialik, The Big Bang Theory, CBS
Jane Lynch, Glee, Fox
Sofia Vergara, Modern Family, ABC
Julie Bowen, Modern Family, ABC
Merritt Wever, Nurse Jackie, Showtime
Jane Krakowski, 30 Rock, NBC
Anna Chlumsky, Veep, HBO

Bobby Cannavale, Boardwalk Empire, HBO
Jonathan Banks, Breaking Bad, AMC
Aaron Paul, Breaking Bad, AMC
Jim Carter, Downton Abbey, PBS
Peter Dinklage, Game of Thrones, HBO
Mandy Patinkin, Homeland, Showtime


Anna Gunn, Breaking Bad, AMC
Maggie Smith, Downton Abbey, AMC
Emilia Clarke, Game of Thrones, HBO
Christine Baranski, The Good Wife, CBS
Morena Baccarin, Homeland, Showtime
Christina Hendricks, Mad Men, AMC

About the author

Ari Karpel is a frequent contributor to Fast Company and Co.Create and an instructor at UCLA Extension. His writing about culture, creativity and celebrity has also appeared in The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, Men's Health, The Advocate and Tablet.